“Free” education is “taken for granted” in Australia, says vc



Some of Australia’s most revered policy innovations have inadvertently undermined universities’ ‘social license to operate’, a Times Higher Education conference heard.

Macquarie University Vice Chancellor Bruce Dowton said two 20th century reforms – the abolition of university tuition fees under 1970s Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme ( HECS) the following decade – had contributed to a community mindset of taking higher education for granted.

“There is this social psychology in Australia that higher education should be free and therefore has no cash value,” Professor Dowton told the THE Live ANZ an event.

“Australian society [does] do not value the benefits of a university education in a way as tangible as the United States. “

He said he was reminded of the “monetized value” of education during the decades he spent as a medical scholar and administrator in the United States. “Having trained three young people at elite private universities, I felt it every semester when I had to transfer hard money – and a lot – to these universities.”

Professor Dowton stressed that he was not advocating US-style fee deregulation. He said HECS was one of the most equitable higher education funding systems in the world, but still created a “conundrum for Australia”.

Policy discussions on financing higher education are often presented as “either-or” debates, he said. “We have not positioned the discourse in the right way, and the universities have some responsibility in this regard. Something has to give way for… the Australian community as a whole to understand the tangible value of investing in higher education, regardless of how it is invested.

In a frank group discussion, university leaders acknowledged that their salaries had contributed to the collection problem. University of Queensland boss Deborah Terry said the attention to vice-chancellors’ salaries made them “a distraction from core issues.”

Professor Terry praised the work to inject transparency and consistency into the way Australian Vice Chancellors’ salaries are designed and communicated, which is being undertaken by the University Chancellors Council. “They are the appropriate body, because senates and councils … set the salaries of vice-chancellors through their remuneration committees.”

University of Auckland director Dawn Freshwater said while vice-chancellors’ pay is handled differently in New Zealand – where the Civil Service Commission provides advice and reports on CEO pay – she supported an open discussion on the subject.

While many vice-chancellors had suffered 20% pay cuts during the pandemic, this was only a “short-term” solution. “It is a global concern,” said Professor Freshwater. “This is something we have to unpack.”

The panel refuted suggestions that universities had prematurely dismissed their staff despite modest financial losses. Many universities have confined job cuts to voluntary departure plans, which sometimes ended up being “oversubscribed”, with staff eager to leave for personal reasons or because they “wanted to make room for more academics. youth “.

But panelists said administrators need to be realistic about the financial impacts of the pandemic and how they interact with regulatory requirements such as the 3% surplus normally mandated by the New Zealand Higher Education Commission.

Professor Dowton said that “prudent financial planning” requires consideration of medium- and short-term impacts. “Losing an undergraduate student for one semester means you lost that student for six semesters,” he pointed out.

He said Macquarie had cut programs with low enrollments not only to save money, but also so staff could be redeployed to more viable courses. “We have been very careful… to respond to the reality of the increased workload for the staff who remain,” he told the conference.

Edith Cowan University (ECU) vice-chancellor Steve Chapman said administrators had carefully assessed the impacts of the pandemic and had been candid about the implications. “We would have an optimistic scenario, a realistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario, and we would explain that to the staff.

“The worst thing you can do is leave people unsure [whether] the university has a plan. You have to make it very clear that we have multiple plans – we have scenarios planned for the different things that can happen. “

Professor Chapman said the composition of the student body and ECU operations had protected it from the harshest financial impacts of the pandemic and that no layoffs were necessary. But he cautioned against complacency, with “tough decisions” the industry still faces.

“Everyone was seriously worried in 2020, but I expect [borders will still] will be closed in the middle of next year. The big financial impacts did not come early, and they are not yet there. The payback is likely to last a decade, not a few years, so let’s face it we came out of rough waters. “

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